The Evanston Township High School football program collaborated with Northwestern University and the Retired Professional Football Players of Chicago to present “Building the Foundation for Life: Exploring the Benefits of Football” on April 22 at NU’s Nicolet Football Center. Former NFL players, current collegiate and high school student athletes, and college football coaches discussed the deep impact that playing football has had on their lives.

All of the program speakers have strong ties to the Evanston community. ETHS graduate Jake Rohde (2008), Director of Community Outreach for Evanston Football, emphasized that playing football, even for just a few years, can have benefits that last a lifetime. “I only played the game for seven years, but it had such a profound impact on me that I will remember the stories and experiences forever,” said Mr. Rohde, who also serves as Head Freshman Football Coach at the high school.

Former NFL player Cecil Martin got his first chance to play football when he joined the High Ridge Chargers Youth Football program after moving to Evanston. “When we moved from the South Side of Chicago to Evanston, the environment and geography changed, and so did the opportunities,” Mr. Martin told an audience that included current and future student athletes as young as 5 years of age – the same age Martin was when his family settled in Evanston.

“If I wanted to play sports, I had to make the grade. It wasn’t easy; I had to learn how to study. Playing football motivated me to be the best I could be in the classroom and in sports,” said Mr. Martin, who was a three sport athlete at ETHS in football, basketball, and track. He went on to play football at the University of Wisconsin, where he started for four years at fullback. In 1999, he was drafted in the sixth round of the NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, where he played for four seasons.

Mr. Martin says he believes that football programs inspire young players to put energy and enthusiasm into being the best they can be on and off the field. “A lot of these kids aren’t going to play college football. Student athletes should ask themselves, ‘What kind of person will I be if this doesn’t work out?’” said Mr. Martin, who continues to give back by mentoring student athletes and frequently volunteering for nonprofit programs.

Retired Minnesota Vikings player Brent Novoselsky spoke from a parent’s perspective. “Love your kids, push your kids, but have some hobbies of your own,” he advised. He encouraged parents to think, “If you knew your son was not going to go pro, what would be good about his football experience?”

NU quarterback Clayton Thorson focused on his positive experience as a student athlete, and the benefits of living and going to school in a vibrant, diverse community like Evanston. ETHS senior Christian Nielsen, a two-sport athlete in football and track and field, says he is looking forward to his college experience as well, even though it will not include playing football. As a 2016 Academic All-State football player and National Honor Roll student, Christian says he learned a lot about time management at a young age. He said balancing the expectations of his coaches, parents, and teachers has helped him achieve his personal and academic goals. He credits participation in high school sports for helping him to persevere and “focus on what’s important now.” He has accepted an academic scholarship at the University of Illinois.